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Natural Awakenings NYC & Long Island

Local Environmentalists Decry PPE Pollution

It was a single blue latex glove, abandoned in a communal laundry room, that inspired a New York City college student to reflect on a parallel pandemic: PPE litter. 

“The loss of life during this pandemic has been a hard enough cross to bear,” wrote Anne Carter Davis, a sustainability management student at Columbia Climate School, on the school’s news site, State of the Planet, in March. “Gloves and masks discarded aimlessly in public only serve to undermine our triumphs over this scourge.”

Since the spring of 2020, when masks became our ticket to a semi-normal life, environmentalists have been warning about the long-lasting effects of this new pollution stream. By mid-summer, the New York Times was reporting that “some local governments, like Suffolk County in New York, have instituted fines for littering involving masks and gloves.” The NYT quoted Adrienne Esposito, executive director for locally based Citizens Campaign for the Environment, urging people to properly dispose of their PPE: “The bottom line is we don’t want a public health crisis to add to the plastic pollution crisis.”

Unfortunately, that’s what’s happened. In December, the marine conservation organization OceansAsia estimated that 1.5 million masks entered the world's oceans last year. And in April an ABC News report noted that New Jersey’s Clean Ocean Action environmental group “removed 1,113 masks and other pieces of virus-related gear from New Jersey beaches last fall.”

Ideally, we’ll keep PPE off the ground and out of landfills too. That means choosing a reusable alternative—like cloth masks—whenever possible.

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